What if we could find the nature/grace debate or the complexities surrounding “the natural desire for the supernatural” directly within the thought of St. Paul? That is, to find the concrete historical debate unfolding, with all the material and sociological baggage that surrounds this very question? Not in the sense of basic exegesis (for example, analyzing “every good and perfect gift comes from above”), nor simply in carefully attending to St. Paul’s excursive in Ephesians 1, important as this is; but in the sense of attending to concrete history at the social level (beyond, say, a supernatural existential or some such).

Neil Elliott’s The Arrogance of the Nations offers us just such a window.

In a chapter on Roman notions of clemency, Elliott contrasts Paul’s notion of divine mercy with that of imperial propaganda. The clemency of the Augusti was a shame; it was of an opportunity for the current sovereign to bestow acts of mercy “in such a way as to redound to his own glory.” The emperor, as Seneca advised, had to also be extremely cautious with his gift giving. Too-great of an act of leniency could end up undermining the public perception of the emperor’s power. The gifts could never be too great and the resultant mercy could never “stay with” the recipient, in the sense of empowering the receiver. The gift’s sole purpose or showing was to redound to the emperor himself.

Elliot shows that Paul also speaks of another divine king bestowing gifts out of a pure unilateral initiative. According to Elliott, this represents what might be called a rhetorical moment where Paul can demonstrate that what God achieved through Christ was “more than relief from the penalty of trespasses; it was the dawn of a new dominion, the ‘reign’ of grace (5:21).” But where the emperor had to limit his clemency lest his power should be compromised, God’s “‘kindness and forbearance’ are themselves the expression of God’s power,” as Elliott states. God’s justice cannot be compromised, it cannot be exhausted or hampered should the recipient become empowered (empowered, not ungrateful); or, in Pauline terms, God’s mercy produces repentance and obedience, hallmarks of further gifts that now constitute the recipient. Reading for a moment through the eyes of the Petrine epistles, we might refer to this as becoming “partakers of the divine nature.”

De Lubac was found of quoting St. Augustine’s notion that the greatest gift God gives is the very gift of one’s being to oneself. From the very beginning, we are gifted with grace, yet the initiative is always already on God’s part; but not in such a way that it cancels out the creature. God’s mercy cannot be compromised on account of the creature inhabiting the gift, because the gift of grace is not merely a additive to what already exist, but the transformation or completion into the new creation.

The picture that Elliott offers of St. Paul is getting at the same thing. God’s mercy is not a mere show; it is not just to show how great God is, but to provide the gift of God’s very self; to participate “out of the faithfulness of Christ” (100).

I can’t help but feel that some of de Lubac’s interlocutors were somewhat like modern day Seneca’s. Out of concern to protect the majesty of God (or the magisterium?), they opted to be extremely careful when defining the boundaries of grace, lest God become too kind. But St. Paul offers another picture. God’s gifts are never compromised; the glory of God’s mercy always remains with God, it cannot be exhausted no matter how much the creature is glorified.